Peter Miller was limping through the paddock gardens at Santa Anita, on his way to watch one of his horses run. Blood was leaking through the outside of his blue jeans below the left knee.
"Horse in the second race got me," Miller said when asked. "No, he didn't win."
The trainer shrugged it off as an occupational hazard. One week later, celebrating in the winner's circle after the Grade 1 victory of Roy H in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship, Miller conceded the leg was still tender, but -- as his mentor Charlie Whittingham used to say -- it was a long way from his heart.
The ranks of horse handlers who have been nailed by a Thoroughbred wearing aluminum racing plates are legion. That doesn't make it hurt any less. Spend enough time around racehorses and there will be some kind of physical damage inflicted by the half-ton pea brain who spends all day cooped up in a stall. The thought that one of them could be the next Citation might help dull the pain a little. But only a little.
Unless a horse kick cracks a bone, it's okay to play tough. But when a horse stumbles, falls, and rolls on the rider, the human body collapses in frail surrender.
That is why it was so good to find out that Jim Barnes was back at the Bob Baffert barn this week, riding a desk instead of a saddle, less than a month after his pelvis was fractured when his pony took a tumble the morning of Sept. 17 at Santa Anita. The memory was still vivid.
"I did the same thing I've done for the last 35 years, 365 days a year," Barnes said from home. "Go out with the first set, back up with the horses. They turned around to gallop off and I turned around, went about 20 feet, and just went head over heels. It wasn't his fault. He just somehow took a wrong step and went to his face."
Barnes was riding his buckskin pony Gru, an otherwise sure-footed beast who has been reliably by the side of horses like American Pharoah and Arrogate during morning business hours over the past several years. A Volvo sedan is more temperamental.
But on this day Gru lost the plot, and Barnes paid the price. He sustained what is termed an "open book" fracture, described by the website of the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma as an injury in which "the front of the pelvis opens like a book. This injury results in tears of the strong pelvic ligaments that hold the pelvis bones together. Large arteries pass near these ligaments and can get torn, resulting in massive blood loss."
"I had to have two surgeries," Barnes said. "The first was to stop the internal bleeding. The next day I had surgery for the other stuff."
The other stuff included structural repair of the pelvic bone with a plate, a large screw, and six smaller screws.
"Once they took the sutures out I felt a lot better," Barnes said. "Everything's in the healing process now. I've just had to slow down, take time to think. You want to walk, and reach out and grab things, but you just have to know your limitations, because the most important thing is not to do too much. Even if I think I'm okay, just wait."
Barnes conceded his injuries could have been a lot worse, and, of course, he is right. Racing history is replete with horsemen who have paid a physical price, none higher than Del Carroll, who suffered fatal head injuries falling from the colt Sportin' Life early one morning in 1982 at Keeneland.
John Nerud named Dr. Fager after the brain surgeon who saved his life after a fall from his pony at Belmont. Wayne Lukas fell from his pony and fractured ribs, while his son Jeff Lukas sustained a life-changing head injury when run over by a loose horse. Ron McAnally was sideswiped by a riderless horse being ponied on a backstretch road. John Shirreffs had his arm broken when a horse kicked him, then on another occasion cracked his pelvis when his pony wheeled. Larry Jones recovered from serious head trauma after a fall from a young horse.
As far as the Barnes family goes, the daily danger is courted by Jim's wife, Dana, a former jockey and Baffert exercise rider who suffered a fractured leg on the job a few years ago.
The Baffert stable has written a considerable amount of history since Jim Barnes joined the team in 1998, and the head man is quick to give his assistant ample credit. In many ways, Barnes, 57, is the perfect second banana, bereft of ambitious ego, passionate about the work, loyal to a fault. He has been a familiar presence for so long that to see a headline Baffert horse without "Barney" at its side is a strange and confusing sight.
For now, Barnes is content to linger a few hours at their Santa Anita barn each morning, shuffling papers and watching the horses at a safe remove.
"I won't be handling any horses for a while," he said. "A little too risky. But by the time the Breeders' Cup comes around I hope to be spending a lot more time at the barn.
"Anyway," he added, "after years and years of working and traveling, and never really taking any time off, I probably needed a good rest."